Story of canyon’s flume is a real cliffhanger

After decade of planning, crews start restoring historic structure

Phillip Harper, left, and Andrew Lee strip off protective shipping boards from a frame as they prepare to slide it down an improvised ramp to a crew at the edge of the cliff. The crew stationed below then lowered the frame to workers on new stringer beams laid across the old supports of the Hanging Flume.

A worker with Vertical Access of Ithaca, N.Y., guides a frame lowered from a ledge above during work on restoring a 48-foot section of the Hanging Flume. The structure sits 100 feet above the San Miguel River west of Uravan. Using the original 120-year-old supports, the crew will be reconstructing the short segment of the flume through Sunday.


Watch them work

The public is invited to watch the reconstruction, which continues through noon Sunday.

The location is along dirt road Y11 Road, approximately three miles west from the road’s intersection with Colorado Highway 141.

Several hundred feet above the San Miguel River, a steady wind whipped red sand and dirt across the cactus-studded canyon rim with a sandstone overhang. As the wind made the sparse tufts of high-desert grass dance, project manager Ron Anthony carefully peered over the lip of the overhang.

He watched a crew 100 feet below nudge a wooden frame, suspended with ropes and the first of 13 such frames that will be installed, over the rock edge of the cliff, then stop.

His radio crackled. A voice said the frame had gotten hung up on a juniper branch beneath the canyon rim, but it finally was free after the branch broke off and dropped into the San Miguel River below. Amid laughter on both ends of the transmission, Anthony replied, “Kent, I’ll need that juniper branch back when you’re all done with your work.”

“Ron, that’s easy. I already sent it toward Gateway,” the voice on the other end said.

Despite the gusty breeze and clouds of dust, the mood of the team was jovial and excited.

“We call it ‘Flume Fever,’” Anthony said.

Everyone at the project site Wednesday morning was afflicted with Flume Fever. After about a decade of planning, a group of workers finally had begun the actual restoration of a 48-foot section of the Hanging Flume. The section will replicate the flume as it was 120 years earlier, making it stand out from the rest of the flume, which deteriorated over the years.

Built by about 25 laborers between 1888 and 1891, the 13-mile-long canal and flume delivered about 26.6 million gallons of water per day to the Dolores Canyon gold claims of the Montrose Placer Mining Company. The claims didn’t yield much gold, and the company folded three years later. But little more is known about the construction marvel. Only weathered supports and pieces of the five-mile-long hanging section of the flume remain anchored halfway up the canyon walls.

“There’s a lot of mystery to that Hanging Flume,” said Chris Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Western Colorado Interpretive Association, which has been investigating the flume’s history for the past 10 years. The group’s progress has been stymied by a complete lack of documentation from the original construction project.

“It was a huge, elaborate plan, and (there’s) nothing on paper,” Miller said.

Armed with $100,000 in funding provided by the J.M. Kaplan Fund and another $25,000 from the Hendricks Family Foundation, a consortium of companies along with the Bureau of Land Management and the Western Colorado Interpretive Association are attempting a reconstruction of the small section of the flume by using the 120-year-old supports and original methods of construction. Some modern concessions had to be made, such as safety gear, a generator, power tools and two-way radios.

Miller said the reconstruction is a research project; her organization is documenting the work, studying the construction technique and keeping track of the time it takes to rebuild the section. She added the Western Colorado Interpretive Association plans to publish two books about the Hanging Flume after the work is finished, and it hopes to have interpretive signs installed at the current overlook several miles to the west and along Y11 Road across the river from the restored section.

The construction crew consists of wood scientist Anthony, four high-construction workers with Vertical Access of Ithaca, N.Y., a local carpenter, a structural engineer, and a team of laborers from Montrose. The group has four-and-a-half days, until noon Sunday, to restore the segment of the flume to its original state, and the forecast Wednesday said bad weather would be moving in.

Ropes dangling from above made the Vertical Access two-man crew look like a pair of marionettes, hooked up in safety harnesses and sporting red helmets as they carefully picked their way along the flume itself, 100 feet above the river. Onlookers watched the slow-motion dance of the workers along the beams above as frames were lowered, then set into place on top of the old supports.

An additional hundred feet or so above, two more Vertical Access workers in similar harnesses and helmets slowly lowered frames and lumber over the canyon’s edge to their co-workers below.

The wind kicked up plumes of dust on the rim of the canyon, while carpenter T.J. Short of Naturita measured rough-hewn ponderosa pine boards that served initially as a ladder down to the ledge before being lowered to the flume to be used for floor and side boards.

As his tape measure snapped back, Short walked to the other end of the board.

“I’m pretty lucky to be part of this,” he said as he hooked the tape over the wood’s edge. “So very lucky.”

Due to technical difficulties, Colorado temperatures were not available from the Associated Press on Thursday.

Due to technical difficulties, national temperatures were not available from the Associated Press on Thursday.


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